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aventures – La Gourmandista

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Etiqueta: aventures

After 9 Months of Culinary Training, My last Dish!

Yes, in this post I am going to talk about that last stretch whenever one is just about to finish a project, the school year, whatever… Several posts ago I talked about 5-hour ‘Ateliers’ in the kitchen which prepared the students for the final exam. Quickly, the moment during which one doesn’t even know what your own name is, arrived. However, even though the accomplishment can almost be touched, there’s that last 100-meter sprint one’s still missing. I’m sure you all know what I mean.

Proposed Starter: Roasted quail scored with aromatic herbs and bathed in its jus. On the side, a green salad and pea purée.

 Needless to say, this aspiring Cuisine Diploma graduate hadn’t taken an exam causing so many butterflies in my stomach in many moons. So, I had not only to prepare in the theory and practice of the test in question, but also in the emotional aspect of it all. The first part of the exam was the written part, and even though this was no worry for any of the students, it was a good source to score points which may come in handy in the final average. Then, we had what I deemed was the most important test of them all, the practical. This exam lasted 4 hours, hence, one hour less than the workshops did, which complicated the ‘gig’ quite a bit. During all this time, where every minute I think was of vital importance to take the most advantage as possible, I had to prepare a two service-meal which would include: A starter course created with one sole deboned quail. Additionally, on the side there had to be a purée, a vinaigrette and a sauce or jus, plus another twenty or so products. Afterwards, I had to reproduce an entrée whose elements had been prepared throughout the session. To be able to obtain the recipe, we had a list of ingredients and a photograph. To have perfect cooking and seasoning was not only of utmost importance, but the plating had to be as planned, and of course, within the allotted time frame. If the candidate were to serve any of the plates late, a 2% of the final grade would be deducted per minute; very expensive. This could put anyone in serious trouble. Lastly, all the work plan had to be presented in a written dossier either in English or in French, in order to allow the Chefs to know beforehand how the preparations would be worked, and what they could expect before tasting. At the end of the day, surprisingly, I felt more at ease in French.

Compulsory Dish

Quite honestly, I have got to say that even though I had invested hours and hours to plan my dish and although I had trained both recipes at home, I wasn’t totally sure to come out of the kitchen knowingly I had done a good job. I didn’t know if I had been able to conquer the taste buds of the jury. At home, my test run had been good, but it had taken me more than the four hours I were to have the day of the exam. I had to do my best and expect no problems whatsoever. Therefore, I made a very detailed plan (color coded and even play by play) in order for stress and nerves no to take over me.

So, I arrived to school very anticipatedly. I was ready and in front of the kitchen door waiting to enter at least 20 minutes before my starting time (10:30 AM). Just as per the rules stated, the Chef in charge of giving the exam let me enter the kitchen 10 minutes before I were to begin, so I could set up in my station. I took out my notes, the necessary utensils, turned on the fires and the oven, and took the necessary ingredients to my fridge.

As the clock stroke 10:30 on the dot, I started to cook full speed ahead, following the order I had set in my work plan. The minutes passed by extremely fast. In my perception, never had I felt time pass by so fast; promise. For a moment, I felt in despair, for I felt I was not advancing in my list, but as I pulled myself together, I realized I was doing everything as planned and on on time; at least according to my calculation. At 2:00 PM I sent out my starter course, and precisely 30 minutes later, my main course went out. Now, all I had to do was clean and patiently wait. I was so nervous. I had given it my best shot. I felt no big mistakes had been done, even though I wasn’t completely comfortable with the sauce accompanying my fish, but matter of factly, it was the only aspect that disturbed me a tiny bit. Truly, there was nothing that wouldn’t let me sleep that night.

Rungis, the Biggest Farmer’s Market in Europe

I pick up the thread from my previous post about markets, specifically those in Paris, and the question presented at the end regarding where all the delicacies sold there, as well as those served at the restaurants of the French capital, come from. The answer is Rungis. A place I feel anybody who loves eating good food would think of  as a one-of-a-kind market. Then, my lucky day. I found a documentary on TV about it with tons of hard facts: it is located only 7 kilometers away from Paris. It is the biggest market of the Old World, and it has industrial-sized warehouses where all the products are distributed as follows: Seafood, Meats, Dairy, Fruits and Vegetables, as well as Cut Flowers and an Administrative building. Each one of these is classified by type and merchant. It employs more than 20,000 people and about 1,200 wholesale companies in charge of distributing as fresh a product as possible to about 18 million consumers.

Of course, talking about the figures and the 8.8 million Euros marketed here in just one year (according to the 2013 numbers), is quite easy, and quickly written, but to have taken Paris’ main market from the capital all the way to this site was a piece of work I dare to call titanic, since at no given moment did provisions stop being sold. 5 years of construction work, and the ‘move of the century’ between February 27 and March 1, 1969, made it possible for Rungis to be admired by so many around the world.

The most important question – and personal quest –  for this weird Mexican-Parisian person was how to find the way to get there, and how to get to know such a place, since most of the commercial activity takes place between 2:00 and 9:00 AM, as far as I was aware. The information available to me was limited, though correct, and said that by 7:00 in the morning sales would be over, therefore making it a bit difficult to arrive there in time. Another factor was that sales would only be available for clients registered in the market’s database. Having heard this, the requirements seemed excessive plenty, so I decided to leave it at that and dream about maybe one day getting to know the place just for kicks. 

Later, when I began my culinary arts studies, someone shared with me that it was possible to take a tour there with a guide. Nonetheless, the price seemed excessive: 80€ for a lookie no touchie was an impressive price in my head. There were some who went, I myself decided to wait until the school would take me there as a ‘pedagogical field trip’.

Thus, after going through two thirds of the training, the long-awaited moment to visit the sacred market arrived. The rendez-vous was at 4:00 AM just a couple of blocks from the school. We were all there on time; some sleepier than others, some by foot, others by taxi or even Uber. It was cold, but I feel we were all anxious to see the place in question and even though we were all in coats and jackets, had we been handed a pillow and a blanket, no one would have complained. 

Upon arrival to the first warehouse we received some disposable overalls, which were legally required for hygienic reasons. It was evident that we had arrived to the place closest to the Parisian coast. There is no sea here, but there was tuna, sea bass, sea bream, octopus… I even saw some red snapper, which isn’t very common around here. In fact, I had never seen them in this area. The guide showed us the products, the chef cleared  up a few doubts, we took many photographs. The visit finished when we arrived at the end of the unit and got to see small lobster farms, where a discussion began about which kind of lobster was better: the American, or the Breton. It was clear that among the French there was no doubt that the best product came from the Hexagon. For me, the most important piece of information was that 90% of what arrives to this unit is sold within 24 hours, since most of the orders are placed in advance.

Rungis is so big that moving from one unit to the next has to be done in a four-wheeler… so, the bus driver took the group to the next stop: Meats. I literally felt I was entering a walk-in refrigerator, which the chef confirmed was in fact the case. We were taught about product tracing and how the system was implemented due to the mad cow problem at the beginning of the 21st century. The carcasses were quite impressive. The meat looked beautiful. However, I learned that most of the produce coming in from other countries within the EU arrived already cut.

The third stop took us to the fruits and vegetables. I have to confess that my Aztec side surfaced quite quickly, since I immediately started looking for avocados, limes, mangoes, anything I could think of that might arrive from my country. I smiled more than once, when my classmates pointed at fruits they called exotic, and which for me were only star fruit, pitaya, or even a piece of yellow guava. How fortunate we are, those of us who come from a place bathed by sunlight all-year round!

 It was late and we couldn’t stop by one of the pavilions that I was looking forward to the most : The Dairy. The reason was that they were in their most important hour of commerce of the day, and we wouldn’t be welcome. Thus, we went to visit the unit which is the most difficult to manage : The Flowers. This is because the florists’ trading mainly takes place electronically from the Netherlands. Last, but definitely not least, we went to the pavilion in charge of hosting the small local producers. This last pavilion was of utmost interest to me, since they are farmers mostly from the Île-de-France region, who bring their products to compete with those from any other wholesaler. The merchant who probably attracted our attention the most was the one who had exotic herbs and blooms. He was so popular that he chose to look the other way for a bit, and sold little bunches of herbs to my classmates.

As we had some time left, the chef decided to entertain the pack by letting us roam around one of the stores where the school buys supplies such as spices, oils, and vinegars. Of course there were some better behaved than others – I got some spices that would be difficult, if not impossible, to find in my country of origin, or at the local supermarkets in the city.

The tour ended at around 9:00 in the morning. We went to have a quick breakfast at one of the restaurants on the premises. We got into the bus again, and most students fell gladly asleep just as the bus started to head back to Paris. There was no doubt that everyone had looked forward to this visit, and all I can say is that I would most definitely go there again if I had the chance.

Address: 1 Rue de la Tour, 94550 Chevilly-Larue, France

To visit the market, click here

When the Oven Played a Very Bad Joke on Me and it was the Worst Day to Do so

After the 10-Dish Challenge training I talked about in my previous post, I was completely sure it didn’t matter what dish I had to prepare on exam day. I would be calm. I knew the steps, the time, and even how to plate my preparations. I even knew which was my preferred recipe and which one I thought would be better for someone else.

Hence, I arrived about 45 minutes before the time I was indicated my entrance into the kitchen would take place. I immediately changed my clothes into my uniform; my chef’s coat, apron, pants, and cap. I chatted for a moment with some of my classmates upon their arrival to the Winter Garden. Some of them had just finished and one could see how tired they were, but showed relief through their smile indicating they had given it their best, and the culinary odyssey of the day had finished. Others, like myself, were waiting for the ordeal to begin in complete uncertainty of which dish we would have to prepare for the jury. Between you and I, I have to say I wanted the Guinea Fowl Pie, because even though I would have to start at a very quick pace, in the end, the only thing necessary was to be sure it had been long enough in the oven to arrive to the correct temperature in its core, and therefore be sure it wouldn’t be raw.

There were still 15 minutes or so before I was to enter into the kitchen, but decided, together with my Polish classmate who had been appointed to enter at the same time I was, to make an appearance at the kitchen door and see if the Chef would let us enter to set up in the work stations. I entered first and blindly selected my recipe at random. I was then handed my grocery basket and the clock started ticking. I decided to begin with the technical test we were all demanded to do; a béarnaise sauce. I think I was able to prepare it even with my eyes shut. A few minutes into it and I was ready to send it out for tasting. It seemed the Chef had liked it. Smiling and motivated for the good feedback I had been given, I put all my energy into my dish, and even though I hadn’t had received the recipe I had hoped for, neither was I in discontent. I had to prepare a Guinea Fowl in a Clavados sauce. For those of you who are not familiar with Calvados, it’s a liquor made from the double distillation of apple juice alcohol. I made all my prep work, cleaned the bird, chopped all my vegetables, apples, everything… Time was a luxury I couldn’t afford to lose, so I took advantage of every minute as much as possible.

The little animal in question went into the oven after having rubbed butter all around it as the recipe indicated. I turned it once after 10 minutes and another time after 10 more minutes. It was supposed to be ready after 30 minutes in the oven, and it would be then when I would aspire to reduce my sauce for it to be creamy and full of flavor. The Chef notified me that I had 35 minutes to go before I had to send out my preparation to the jury to taste. I have to confess that I was in total awe, for I was almost ready. He advised that I should then take my time to clean up my station, but y’all know the saying “Man proposes, but God disposes”? Well, the 30 minutes passed and the wholly beast was still raw. I left it in the oven for 10 more minutes at an even higher temperature. I notified the Chef. We decided together to change oven and let the jury know. This bird was being rebellious. My time was up and the freaking bird was still raw. They asked me how much additional time I needed. I asked for 10 more minutes.

The beast was finally ready, but my sauce didn’t reduce as it should have. The stress makes one start to make bad decisions and I almost broke it. SHIIIIIT!!!!

I plated as I could. An assistant helped me to put everything in the platter as dignifying as possible for a decently seen French service. Nothing spectacular, nor as I had foreseen. Oh well! I cut the fowl into pieces trying to not burn my hands too much in the process. Fortunately, I had trained myself, and I practically did everything by heart.

The platter got sent out.

My sincere opinion the cooking was at its limit, that it would have appreciated a couple more minutes, but I didn’t have them. My legs were shaking. I started to pick up my sh#t unceremoniously, just hoping the telephone wouldn’t ring in the following 24 hours telling me I had flunked the test because of a faulty oven which didn’t allow me to prepare my best version of the dish.

The Chef, when I was leaving, told me he had two pieces of news for me. A good one and a bad one. I answered that the bad one was that my sauce “stunk”. He nodded to agree, however, he reiterated my cooking had been perfect, on point. I smiled and hugged him. Yes, yes, a total act of disrespect, but in my defense, it was as if half a ton of sorrow and sadness tormenting me at the moment, had been taken off my back.

Of course, there is no photographic evidence of the experience. In fact, I just feel lucky there was something to send out to the jury and that they didn’t penalize me very much.

Back from the Omnivore Food Festival in Paris

In between classes, and just before the exams that would set the end of the first term of my studies, the school authorities invited us to an event which before my eyes wasn’t very clear. I didn’t know exactly what it would be about. It was three days of continuous culinary master classes in different scenarios: savory, sweet, food-trucks, cocktails, the specialized book store, tastings, themed dinners, awards… and even a magazine. In fact, I believe it was the magazine the one which started the movement. The ticket to attend the event was around 100€, but for the students of the institute housing me for my culinary adventure would be free of charge. Even so, I had no idea what I would be seeing specifically, however, I decided to take on the opportunity, since there were some names in the program which were not unknown, at least to me.

I decided to arrive to the second demonstration in the event’s program of the event which denominated itself as “100% Young Cuisine”. Between you and I, some of them are a bit more mature, I think, hahahaha! Nonetheless, the surprises started to arise as soon as the room’s lights were dimmed. Known faces here and there. Others, not that much, but who cared, I was there and surely I was going to learn something. Some locals, many foreigners, even a co-national of mine who made me raise my eyebrow. He made very interesting proposals in his preparations. Undoubtedly, this was not only an entertaining event, but also revealing. It didn’t seem big at the beginning, but it actually was. This year they were celebrating the 10th Edition. I also saw they tour around the world. Unfortunately, no Latin American countries just yet. I hope they find their way there soon… since at least I think it would be interesting for them to see the ones already well known, and to discover the young chefs who start to take on the gastronomy scene, and why not, even take some of the big names to discover the richness of our flavors. A great surprise, three days of controlled “gluttony”, and an army of working hands at the Maison de la Mutualité which made it possible for this marvelous event that I can only describe as Omnivore: The Cooks’ Congress.

Giovanni Passerini

France’s Biggest Farm in the Middle of Paris : The Agriculture Salon

Since I arrived to this country and I learned there was a salon wholly dedicated to agriculture, and that it was here the most popular place for politicians to make an appearance, I understood  part of the essence of its citizens. Here, producers have a special place in the community’s spirit. I knew it was big, and popular among the population, and that even cows, and horses were brought. However, it was completely different to arrive to the now well-known Exhibition Center at the Porte de Versailles and find a literally extremely diverse public. There were people of ALL ages since early in the morning to visit an expo fully dedicated to agriculture, to regional producers, to the jewels from far away; to the kindness of the land.

Once I joined my friend and having coffee and one of those particularly yummy pastries one craves in a Parisian morning, as well as a chat which was longer that we had expected, we set forth on the adventure of the day. When we arrived, our very punctual teuton classmate had already arrived and walked for a bit around the international pavilion. We walked, saw, and tasted a little bit of everything. Fondue, sausages, butter, and truffle pesto. There was Madagascar vanilla, couscous and baklawa, paella, and even what seemed to be a canteen from the American Wild West. We saw horses, cows, chicken, rabbits, to say the least…

True. We didn’t finish, but we ran out of time and energy. At the end, and while searching for exotic rums with VSOP denominations and their three distillations, we also drank the best coffee we could find. We wanted to visit once more, but lack of time, and the people flooding around the expo made it unthinkable. Plus, between you and I, I have to say I don’t agree with animals being here during 2 straight weeks… I will say no more, but honestly, it might just be enough to show the by-products, isn’t it?

SIRHA, The Unmissable World Hospitality and Food Service Event

After only 20 days of having started what I have called “The culinary adventure of my life”, I woke up at 5:00 AM and got ready to head towards the train station and ride on the high-speed route to the second most important city in France, Lyon. Known as the greatest French culinary city in the country, it is in this place where the most important professionals in the hotel and restaurant industry gather every two years. All professionals and apprentices in areas like cuisine, bakery, cheese and dairy producers, pastry; tools, uniform, and machinery vendors; everyone goes. The list is endless, just as that with all the names for judges, assistants, contestants, and exhibitors who go. Thus, I decide to summarize the event, therefore, as so:

With such an introduction, I guess you can imagine the high expectations arisen to attend such an event, since two years ago, I saw some news bulletins on the local television, but buying a ticket at over 100 Euros without taking into consideration the traveling expenses did not seem viable to just go look around what everything was about, even when the World Pastry Cup or the prestigious contest of the Bocuse d’Or take place there… at least not back in 2013. But history has changed, as this time I was able to attend as the student of one of the exhibitors, and I didn’t have but to register online and pick up my badge in the school’s reception. Attractive, isn’t it?

I decided to meet with a friend to not travel all by myself the two hours of high-speed train. We met, without having foreseen so at the Line 10 terminus in Gare d’Austerlitz. We crossed the Seine’s river bridge together and avidly rode the TGV to take us to our first international salon related to world-class gastronomy. To top it all, we were lucky enough to travel in the same car with one of the school’s administrators, so, we were surely not going to get lost on our way to the Exhibition Center. We had the day ahead of us to visit the entire place. We walked until we couldn’t any more. We made a stop on every contest we found; baristas, barmen, all of them… until we sat down for more than an hour before the pastry chefs. If only we could stay longer and see the one with the cuisine chefs. Impossible, at least this time. Maybe in two years.

Undoubtedly, this is one of those opportunities one has to take. What if it’s one of those we have only once in our lifetime?

Not a Vegan, but not Happy with Close Encounters with Live Animals in the Kitchen

It was obvious that I was going to have to encounter small beasts pertaining to the animal kingdom at a certain moment of the training. And I do not mean this contemptuously, nor do I plan on becoming a vegetarian or a vegan in the near future. So, either alive or dead, it was evident our paths would cross before the burners. It’s just a matter of the circle of life, I think.

And it was sooner rather than later, since it was just in the second demo class when Chef Vaca with great ability cut out the filets of a Lemon Sole and made me practice during the weekend. I thought I wouldn’t be able to do it when it was up to me. Now, two and a half months after, I know it wasn’t as hard as it seemed.

The following class, Chef Poupard presented me with a chicken, WITH THE HEAD STILL ATTACHED TO IT, and which I had to gut… even the lungs. I have to say that even today, I have to practice how to truss poultry.

However, when I did cry out loud just like a 5-year old kid who just found a bug in her bedroom was when in Lesson 7 practical I had to fry small crabs and make them into a bisque. The dish came out delicious, but the process was a bit more painful. I still don’t know who suffered more, for they died when I fried them in olive oil, or for I who had to wash them while still alive, fry them, and smash them with a small mallet. I still make faces when I think about preparing this at home once more.

Clearly it’s not the same when one goes to the market and buys 4 fish fillets, or to a restaurant during summer vacation in Martha’s Vineyard and asks for “live” lobster, or receiving live crustaceans in a package where they are half asleep and prepare a salad to accompany crushed avocado who someone had the courage to call guacamole. But let’s talk about that in another entry. I am still not over having such a close encounter with the crab pincers or the fact or the alleged guacamole beat with a whisk. Hahahaha!